The most influential of the concordant bodies of Freemasonry in the United States and one of the most important Masonic rites worldwide, the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite was founded in Charleston, South Carolina in 1802 by a group of Freemasons who had received a charter to work the Rite of Perfection, a system of high degrees from France that claimed descent from the medieval Knights Templar but actually had their roots in the Jacobite Masonry of the mid-eighteenth century. They obtained several additional degrees from various sources, expanding their Rite from the 25 degrees worked by the Rite of Perfection to 33. Recruitment was slow, and for decades the Scottish Rite ranked as one of the minor rites in American Freemasonry. It has two jurisdictions in America, Northern and Southern; the Northern, despite the name, includes only those northern states east of the Mississippi River, so that Scottish Rite Masons in Alaska belong to the Southern Jurisdiction.
The transformation that turned the Scottish Rite into one of the world’s most successful Masonic rites was the work of one man, Albert Pike (1809–91). Pike joined the Scottish Rite in 1853 and rose quickly through its ranks, becoming Sovereign Grand Commander of the Southern Jurisdiction in 1859. He completely rewrote the Rite’s initiation rituals, replacing dull and turgid language with genuine poetry and inserting a great deal of occult philosophy into the ceremonies. In addition, his Morals and Dogma (1871) – a commentary on the Scottish Rite degrees – is one of the classics of nineteenth-century occultism. It has been said, with some justice, that Pike “found the Scottish Rite in a log cabin and left it in a Temple.”
Pike envisioned the Scottish Rite as the university of Freemasonry, a body in which those Masons interested in the philosophical and spiritual dimensions of the Craft could work their way through degrees that summed up the moral and intellectual heritage of the western world. During his time, Scottish Rite lodges met in buildings owned by other Masonic bodies, and Pike wrote movingly of the simplicity and dignity of the rituals. Under Pike and his successors, the Rite spread to many other countries, and Supreme Councils were chartered in Europe, South America and Australasia.
Pike’s immediate successors in the American jurisdictions lacked his vision, but for the most part they followed the precedents he had set. Starting in the decades after Pike’s death, however, the Rite gradually took on a more active political stance and entered into a long-running feud against the Roman Catholic Church. Masonic bitterness about the Vatican’s hostility toward Masonry goes back centuries, but in early twentieth century American opposition to Catholicism also served to cloak racist attitudes toward Irish, Italian, and Hispanic immigrants. Successive Sovereign Grand Commanders in the Southern Jurisdiction used the Rite’s resources to disseminate anti-Catholic propaganda and lobby against parochial schools.
The Scottish Rite’s opposition toward Catholicism became a severe liability in the 1920s when it brought the Rite into a tacit alliance with the revived Ku Klux Klan. The Klan shared the Rite’s anti-Catholic sentiments, and white Masons’ hostility toward black Prince Hall Masonry rendered the Rite’s leadership as well as its ordinary members vulnerable to the Klan’s blandishments. During the mid-1920s several members of the Southern Jurisdiction’s Supreme Council were also Klansmen, and one of them simultaneously headed the Scottish Rite and the Klan in his home state. As the Klan’s dubious activities came to light in the media in the second half of the decade, embarrassed Scottish Rite leaders and members alike concealed their Klan involvements, but the Rite’s reputation suffered.
The difficulties caused by the Rite’s short-lived rapprochement with the Klan proved to be transitory. By the end of the twentieth century, though, the Rite in America faced problems that offered no easy solutions. The roots of the predicament reached back to the beginning of the century, and grew out of the soaring popularity of the Scottish Rite in those years. Faced with hundreds of enthusiastic new members, most American Scottish Rite units began to confer the degrees as theatrical performances in which new members simply sat through a series of ritual plays, standing at intervals to join in when it was time to take the obligations of each degree. At the same time, the once-mandatory time between degrees went by the wayside, and new rules allowed most of the degrees to be skipped, so that only five degrees – 4°, 14°, 18°, 30°, and 32° – were required. By the middle of the twentieth century new members of the Rite in America went from 3°, Master Mason, to 32°, Master of the Royal Secret, in a single weekend, or even a single day, by sitting in an auditorium and watching five rituals performed on stage.
These changes went as far as they did because the Scottish Rite in America during this time had become economically dependent on another Masonic concordant body, the Ancient Arabic Order of Nobles of the Mystic Shrine. The Shriners had golf courses and other members-only recreational facilities that offered a powerful draw to the middle-class and middle-aged men who made up the majority of American Masons. Membership in the Shrine was available only to Masons who held either the 32° of the Scottish Rite or the Knight Templar degree of the York Rite, but most Shriners had little interest in Freemasonry – in the late 1950s, 92 percent of Shriners never set foot inside a Masonic lodge meeting and 95 percent never attended meetings of Scottish Rite or York Rite bodies after their initiation. The Scottish Rite capitalized on this by simplifying the process so that Master Masons could qualify for Shrine membership after a single weekend of Scottish Rite degrees. This brought the Rite a steady income from hundreds of thousands of members who had no interest in the Rite itself but paid their dues every year to maintain their standing in the Shrine.
All this changed abruptly in 2000 when the Shrine, faced with declining membership on its own account, changed its rules to allow Master Masons to join without going through the Scottish or York Rites first. Enrollment in the Scottish Rite, already dwindling at that time, plummeted thereafter. While the Rite’s survival in the United States is probably not at risk, it seems likely to shrink to a small percentage of its peak size during the next few decades.
Outside the United States, the Rite’s history has followed different paths. In Latin America, the Scottish Rite is far and away the most popular branch of Masonry, and most Masonic lodges are affiliated with it. In the years following the Soviet Union’s collapse the Rite succeeded in expanding into eastern European countries formerly closed to Masonry, including Russia itself, and seems to be taking a similar role there. In Britain, by contrast, the Rite has restricted its membership to Christians, limited access to its degrees, and dropped the word “Scottish” from its name, referring to itself as the Ancient and Accepted Rite; it remains a relatively small Masonic body there.
- Rite of Perfection
- Scottish degrees
- Pike, Albert
- Roman Catholic Church
- Ku Klux Klan
- Prince Hall Masonry
- Ancient Arabic Order of Nobles of the Mystic Shrine (AAONMS)
The Element Encyclopedia of Secret Societies : the ultimate a-z of ancient mysteries, lost civilizations and forgotten wisdom written by John Michael Greer – © John Michael Greer 2006